In an early midweek game against Winthrop which even the band's tuba section missed, the Cavalier offense almost forgot to show up as well. The Virginia men's basketball team trailed the upstart Eagles 44-41 with 10:30 to play, but a typically tough defensive effort and a career-high 17 points from junior guard Jontel Evans carried the Cavaliers to a 69-48 victory at John Paul Jones Arena.
"We were in a dog fight the whole game and we just came out and responded well," Evans said. "We knew it was going to start on our defensive end. Once we got stops on the defensive end that lead to buckets on the offensive side."
From the onset, the Cavaliers (2-0) clamped down against Winthrop and held the Eagles' offense to just 31.8 percent shooting from the field and 25 percent from beyond the arc during the first half. Nearly three minutes passed before a three-pointer by senior guard Andre Jones cracked the scoresheet for Winthrop. The Eagles (0-2) managed just seven field goals and 22 points at the half, but Virginia wasn't much better.
After routing South Carolina State 75-38 in their home opener Sunday, the Cavaliers managed just 25 first-half points and missed six of seven three-point attempts against the Eagles' zone defense.
"I thought [the zone] made us tentative in the first half," coach Tony Bennett said. "We were real stagnant on the perimeter and just played ring around the rosie. We didn't get paint touches. At halftime that was our message ... you need to have some assertiveness."
The teams traded baskets to open the second half until Winthrop freshman guard Andre Smith hit back-to-back treys for a 44-41 Eagles lead. Virginia freshman guard Malcolm Brogdon responded with a three pointer of his own, however, and after sophomore guard KT Harrell made a layup, sophomore guard Joe Harris drilled a three from the corner. Harris had been 1-of-8 from the field and gave an emphatic fist pump after his shot gave Virginia a five-point lead.
"I wasn't hitting the shots that I usually do and feel comfortable shooting, but I'm not going to let it get to me," Harris said. "I've got that shooter's mentality that I'm just going to keep shooting with as much confidence if I miss eight in a row as if I made eight in a row."
Winthrop called a timeout to try to regroup after Harris's three, but Evans - who shattered his previous career high of 11 points - refused to let the Eagles regain ground. The guard spent most of the first half on the bench after committing two early fouls but dominated when his team needed him most in the second half. During the three and a half minutes after the Winthrop timeout, Evans sunk two free throws, buried a layup and then found nothing but net from the corner to give the Cavaliers a 12-point lead.
"It was tough getting two fouls; I was pissed because I knew I was coming out of the game," Evans said. "But I knew once I got my second chance, I had to go out there, be a leader, let the game come to me and make good plays."
Forty-three seconds after Evans' triple, Brogdon followed with a three from the other side, giving the Cavaliers a commanding 15-point advantage their shutdown defense would not relinquish. Virginia held the Bulldogs to just four points during the final 10:30, and according to senior forward Mike Scott, "the defense won us the game."
Scott finished with a team-high 18 points and eight boards but was relegated to the bench for the bulk of the Cavaliers' 28-4 run because Bennett did not want to break the team's defensive continuity. Heralded as the missing piece behind Bennett's best season to date, Scott set the early tone offensively, but the team tellingly demonstrated that other players are more than capable of carrying the load for long stretches.
"That group we had on the floor - [sophomore forward] Akil [Mitchell] and [senior center] Assane [Sene] - were doing a terrific job," Bennett said. "We were defending so well and getting stops. That's a team."
On a day of difficult field goal shooting for both squads, points proved valuable in any fashion. Against Winthrop, Virginia's free throw shooting - one of the team's much-maligned weaknesses last season - wasn't just improved from the squad's .690 season average - it was perfect. The Cavaliers finished a school-record 19-of-19 from the charity stripe - compared to Winthrop's 9-of-19 - and sent an early message that Bennett's offseason emphasis on that facet of the game already appears to be a wise investment.
"That was terrific to see the guys stepped up and made their throws," Bennett said. "There wasn't a miss."
The Cavaliers hope to channel last night's strong closing effort for an entire game when they travel to St. Thomas for continued play in the U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam, starting Friday against TCU.